CAIRO — A Libyan military spokesman said Monday that three foreigners were among a number of militants killed in U.S. airstrikes in eastern Libya, but said it is too early to determine if the target, an Algerian al-Qaida-linked leader, was among them.
The U.S military said it launched weekend airstrikes in Libya targeting Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a militant who once belonged to al-Qaida who is charged with leading a 2103 attack on a gas plant in Algeria that killed at least 35 hostages, including three Americans. Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said it was believed the strike was successful but “post-strike assessments” were still underway to determine whether the target was killed.
“Our initial assessment is that it was a successful strike but we’re not prepared to confirm that because we haven’t finalized our assessment,” he said. Libya’s internationally recognized government, based in the country’s east, said the strike was coordinated with the United States.
A Libyan Islamist with ties to Libyan militants, however, said the airstrikes missed Belmokhtar, instead killing four members of a Libyan extremist group, linked to al-Qaida, Ansar Shariah, in Ajdabiya, some 850 kilometers (530 miles) east of the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
If confirmed, Belmokhtar’s death would be a major get for the U.S. Belmokhtar was considered among the most wanted terrorists in the region. There was no immediate proof provided for Belmokhtar’s death, which requires a DNA test or an announcement by his group that he was killed.
This isn’t the first time authorities have claimed to have killed Belmokhtar, a militant believed to be 43 who reportedly lost his eye in combat and fought in Afghanistan. He was one of a number of Islamist fighters who have battled Algeria’s government since the 1990s, later joining al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the group’s North Africa branch. He then formed his own group, accused in the gas plant attack. He later emerged in Libya, and is believed to have been located there since based in the western and southern part of Libya.
The Libyan government initially said Belmokhtar was killed and hailed the raid as a sign of international help it has sought against militants who run rampant in much of the country. Libya is split between the international recognized government based in the east and another government in Tripoli, backed by Islamist militias.
But highlighting the uncertainty of operating in chaos-plagued country, Libyan military spokesman Maj. Mohammed Hegazi told The Associated Press that it was too early to confirm if Belmokhtar was killed.
He said the government’s statement was “too hasty,” adding that tests are still under way.
Hegazi said the bodies are charred from the raid, that killed 17, including two foreign militant leaders and a Tunisian fighter.
“I don’t confirm or deny. We are waiting confirmation,” he told AP speaking by telephone.
Hegazi said the raid was based on solid intelligence that indicated that militants forced out of the eastern city of Benghazi by fighting there had taken refuge in Ajdabiya. He said that no civilians were killed in the raids. He said that after the Tunisian was fatally injured, the militants transported him to the local hospital in Ajdabiya, setting off clashes with local troops that left three soldiers dead.
Other officials gave conflicting numbers on the death toll, a sign of the confusion over the strike’s aftermath.
One government official in Libya said the strike hit a group of Ansar Shariah militants in Ajdabiuya, killing five and wounding more. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters. That group was linked to the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
The Islamist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals in restive Libya, told AP early Monday that Belmokhtar wasn’t at the site of the airstrike. He said the strike killed four Ansar Shariah members in Ajdabiya.
At the Pentagon, Warren said the strike hit a “hard structure,” but gave few other details.
A U.S. official said two F-15 fighter jets launched multiple 500-pound bombs in the attack. The official was not authorized to discuss the details of the attack publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity. Authorities say no U.S. personnel were on the ground for the assault.
Intelligence officials say Belmokhtar essentially built a bridge between AQIM and the underworld, creating a system where various blends of outlaws now support each other and enroll local youth. He’s been linked to terror attacks and the lucrative kidnapping of foreigners in the region. He’s also known as Belaouer the One Eyed, Abou al-Abbes and “Mister Marlboro,” the last name a play on the fact he’s accused of smuggling contraband cigarettes through the Sahara and the Sahel.
The U.S. filed terrorism charges in 2013 against Belmokhtar in connection with the Algeria attack. Officials have said they believe he remained a threat to U.S. and Western interests. Belmokhtar had just split off from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb to start his own franchise.
The charges filed against Belmokhtar by federal law enforcement officials in Manhattan included conspiring to support al-Qaida and use of a weapon of mass destruction. Additional charges of conspiring to take hostages and discharging a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence carry the death penalty.
At the time, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a release that Belmokhtar “unleashed a reign of terror years ago, in furtherance of his self-proclaimed goal of waging bloody jihad against the West.”
Authorities also offered a $5 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Belmokhtar.
The airstrike comes as al-Qaida militants in eastern Libya continue to battle with members of the Islamic State, as the warring groups fight over power and resources.
And the U.S. has been involved before in the fight against extremists in Libya.
U.S. special forces in 2013 went into Tripoli and seized Abu Anas al-Libi, whisking him out of the country. Al-Libi was accused by the U.S. of involvement in the 1998 bombings of two American embassies in Africa. Al-Libi died January this year in a US hospital from a long-standing medical condition.
Last week, a senior al-Qaida leader was killed by masked gunman, prompting the group to declare holy war on the local Islamic State affiliate. Clashes between the two groups in the eastern coastal city of Darna killed 11 people.
Militants have taken advantage of the chaos, flowing fighters into the country’s vast ungoverned spaces. And as the Islamic State group has grown in power, fueled by successes in Iraq and Syria, some al-Qaida fighters have switched loyalties.
In its statement Sunday, the Libyan government said that the operation “is a piece of the international support that it has long requested to fight terrorism that represents a dangerous threat to the regional and international situation.” It added that the government would like more help fighting terrorism, including the Islamic State group, which controls Sirte and is moving west toward Misrata and south toward the Jufra military base.